Beijing’s candidate expected to romp home in limited Hong Kong poll
Carrie Lam seen by China as low-risk candidate on fractious island territory
Carrie Lam signs autographs during campaigning in Hong Kong this week. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Carrie Lam, the favourite to be named Hong Kong’s chief executive on Sunday in a limited poll heavily weighted in favour of pro-Beijing candidates, has run a newspaper ad calling for an end to the conflicts dividing the territory.
“At this time, seeing that our society has been continuously pulling away in opposite directions and that conflicts persist among us, I believe it is critical and urgent that we set aside our differences and come together again for the city we love,” the half-page advertisement in the South China Morning Post read.
With the firm hand of Beijing steering the outcome, Sunday’s election is a three-horse race. The favourite is Lam, a former chief secretary who was number two under the unpopular outgoing chief executive, CY Leung, but who has not managed to win much popular support.
The voting system is heavily weighted in favour of pro-Beijing business and government interests in Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
There are more than 3.7 million registered voters, but ballots for the chief executive are cast by a panel of 1,194 members, chosen by about a quarter of a million people in a system similar to the electoral college in the US.
Lam is expected to scoop up almost 600 of the panel members’ votes.
The best-liked candidate is former financial secretary John Tsang, who is way ahead of Lam in the popularity stakes but doesn’t have Beijing’s backing. Meanwhile, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing is progressive and reform-minded but an outside shot at best.
Setting aside conflict is something that Beijing will be keen on too, having watched with anger the pro-democracy protests of 2014 and increasing calls for greater autonomy.
Joshua Wong, the 20-year-old leader of the Umbrella Movement that occupied swathes of downtown Hong Kong in 2014, believes that Sunday’s election marks a low point for Hong Kong’s treasured autonomy. Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was guaranteed “one country, two systems” rule and a move towards greater democracy, which has yet to materialise.
“It’s just a selection, rather than an election, this Sunday, because the election is just controlled and the candidate is controlled by the Communist Party of China,” Wong told The Irish Times.
The Occupy protests were a struggle against Beijing’s efforts to steer Hong Kong away from open elections, and they arguably signalled the end of CY Leung’s chances of standing again.
Sunday’s election for city leader is the first since the street protests in 2014 and Wong is calling for civil disobedience on the street on the day.
“What we hope through the civil disobedience on Sunday is to voice our demands and let them realise it is time to give Hong Kong people back the rights of universal suffrage and it’s necessary for us to get a chance to vote in an election,” Wong said.
Wong knows how much influence Beijing can wield. Four democratically elected members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, including Wong’s fellow student leader Nathan Law, are facing removal from the legislature over charges that their swearing-in oaths were invalid because they did not properly recite a strict oath of allegiance to China.
Zhang Dejiang, the Chinese politician in charge of Hong Kong affairs, has already made the central government’s wishes known: its preferred candidate is Lam. As a result, the voting panel is unlikely to do anything to ruffle the feathers of the Communist Party. Tycoons such as Li Ka-shing have openly backed Lam to win.
“Popularity certainly is important, but maintaining a good working relationship with the central government is also crucial,” Li said last week, when pressed about whom he would back.
Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said John Tsang’s popularity with the public and pan-democrats very likely works against him, since it immediately makes Beijing suspicious, even though Tsang appears willing to revive anti-subversion legislation and Lam has been more non-committal on this and other sensitive issues.
“Tsang’s popularity suggests to Beijing that he would have more than one master – not just Beijing, but also Hong Kong public opinion – and that makes him unpredictable and even dangerous,” said Rosen.
A victory for Tsang looks statistically unlikely: even if he gets most of the 300-odd votes from the pan-democracy camp, he still needs around 300 votes from the pro-Beijing camp to win on Sunday, and he received only 35 nominations from the pro-Beijing camp to enter the race.
“Carrie Lam is considered a moderate, and I’m afraid that this is the best Beijing will allow. If Lam doesn’t work out, they may opt for a more hardline candidate next time, since the bottom line for Beijing remains control, not popularity,” said Rosen. “They are clearly frustrated with developments in Hong Kong and are more and more suspicious of developments in the territory.”